AT&T plans fall launch for high-speed wireless in Triangle

The region is a battleground for the wireless broadband offering known as "4G." AT&T already has much of the infrastructure in place, and the investment will be "in the same range" of the more than $200 million the company has spent upgrading its network over the past three years, an executive says.

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An AT&T employee demostrates the 4G Motorola Atrix
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Research Triangle area is a high-tech hotbed when it comes to the emerging generation of faster wireless services with major carriers targeting the region for early deployment.

AT&T (NYSE: T) doesn’t intend to be left behind.

At a press conference on Wednesday that took place at a secluded North Raleigh data and switch center, the company disclosed plans for high-speed wireless broadband service known as “4G” to be rolled out later this year. They also stressed that the Triangle will be one of the first markets where new technology will deliver data, video and voice six to seven times faster than current 3G technology. (Read here for a primer about 4G technology.)

Why the Triangle? Call it a big market opportunity.

“The smart phone adoption rate in this market is very high,” said Alison Hall, AT&T’s vice president and general manager for AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets in North Carolina, in an interview Wednesday. “You have the technology centers and the universities were so many young people are influenced about what devices and services to buy. It’s important that we get a shot at them in Raleigh.

“You don’t know where they will go next, and when or if they do move on we want them to share that they have a first-class experience with AT&T. We want them to spread the world.”

4G devices already on sale

In advance of 4G access, AT&T is already selling 4G-capable phones such as a laptop-phone combo from Motorola called the Atrix. AT&T personnel demonstrated the $499 package’s capability, including live video captured and transmitted by the Atrix.

While AT&T now faces competition in the Apple iPhone marketplace from Verizon Wireless at 3G speeds, Hall chose instead to emphasize the fact that AT&T is encouraging customers to buy 4G capable phones now, one of which costs just $99. When the 4G service comes online, customers won’t have to change anything on their phones, she said.

Noting that Forbes magazine has labeled Raleigh as the “most wired city,” AT&T’s external affairs regional director Walter Wells said the company’s 4G plans will help the capital city keep that ranking.

Using a mix of so-called two industry standards – LTE and HPSA Plus technology – in taking on Verizon Wireless, which also targets the Triangle for an early rollout. According to Hall, AT&T is offering a blended service with HPSA Plus coming first so that customers will have a better “fallback” position as their phones move from one cell to another where coverage and speeds might vary. Competitors do not offer that capability, she said.

Nationwide, AT&T is targeting 2013 for widespread 4G service.

Sprint and Clear are already offering 4G speeds, and Time Warner Cable has its own 4G mobile data service that runs off the Clear network. 

The 4G plan

Exactly when and where the service will be available and just how much the communications company is investing in the network upgrades is something executives would not disclose. The company did take media on what was said to be the first tour permitted of a wireless center as well as discuss 4G plans.

Speaking in generalities, Hall offered some hints.

“The investment will be similar” to the $240 million spent on network upgrades and expansion over the past three years, Hall said. Nationally, AT&T will be investing $19 billion in wireless and other projects this year.

She also noted that the software and antenna upgrades on cell towers needed to support 4G, permitting more capacity and faster speeds, are already in place. “What we’re doing now is putting in place the backbone that will deliver data from the towers to the switches at Ethernet speeds,” she explained.

4G service also will come up periodically with towers coming online individually, Hall said. Some towers are already supporting 4G in Charlotte.

A formal announcement about 4G availability will be made when it is widely available in the area, she added.

Some 4G network gear is in place

The Raleigh facility already has some equipment in place to support the HSPA plus technology, according to Shayne Sage, who runs the mobile centers across the region and who along with Hall led the media tour.

Specific upgrades that AT&T plans for the Triangle area include:

  • Replacing more than 230 antennas at 52 cell sites
  • Adding more capacity at 165 towers
  • Increasing backhaul capacity to more than 340 cell sites
  • Adding 20 new cell locations
  • Beefing up so-called “distributed antenna system” networks for additional coverage during events

AT&T also has announced plans to acquire T-Mobile USA in a deal that still requires regulatory approval. If that deal is approved, Hall said that AT&T’s 4G coverage will be made available to 95 percent of the U.S. population. The target prior to the T-Mobile deal was 80 percent.

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